Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Itineraries - 96 hours in London

London! A must visit for any historian, literature or travel lover. I was hard pressed to come up with an itinerary for just four days in London, but here are my favorite experiences and must-dos for the first time traveler.

Trafalgar square

Day 1

Try to get in on an early flight into London. After you are settled in and relaxed, visit the Tower of London. This is an amazing attraction with the crown jewelry on display, including the Cullinan and Kohinoor diamonds. Post visit, you can cross the London bridge to visit Burough market to sample some delicious food and English pies.

 Post lunch, take a leisurely stroll down the queens walk passing by the Globe theatre (Shakespeare buffs might want to go on a tour here), the Tate modern and several booksellers by the riverside. Get tickets to the London eye and ride on it around sunset for spectacular city views.

Call it an early night after this to get a fresh start for day 2.

Day 2

Start your day nice and early and visit the British museum. This is one of the most spectacular museums you could visit and you can easily spend an entire day or more inside checking out its various attractions which include the famous Rosetta stone.

Post visit, walk to Leicester square to get lunch at one of London's pubs where the menu includes the famous chicken tikka masala. Walk to Westminister Abbey from there to enjoy the gothic architecture and check out the tombstones of various writers, poets and even sir Issac Newton. Finish your day with drinks in a Soho area pub.

Day 3

This is a day best spent exploring the famous market at Covent garden, then walking around the Oxford, Regent, Carnaby street and Picadilly circus area. Stop for lunch at Veeraswamy, offering swanky but delicious Indian grub. Mahatma Gandhi is said to have dined here on his London visit.

Visit Fortnum and Mason for an excellent high tea experience later in the evening after strolling by Buckingham palace, the mall and St.James park.

Day 4

Venture beyond London on this day, visiting either Hampton court palace or Windsor castle to experience a bit of the royal life. Hampton court is relatively less touristed and worth a visit. For the garden lover, Kew Gardens is an excellent pick as well.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Literary pursuit of Travel - In the land of the rings (1)

I didn't know much about New Zealand when I was growing up. Sure, it was a popular site for many Cricket games played in Auckland and Christchurch and I heard of distant relatives who moved there, but I hadn't read many books which would help me imagine the scenery of this distant land.
Then came the famous Peter Jackson movies which suddenly correlated the books I had read in school with spectacular scenery.

I couldn't resist the temptation to do a stopover in New Zealand on my way to Sydney. I was flying on the national airline anyways, so it seemed like the logical thing to do. After careful analysis of both islands I picked the south, being quite the nature lover. A five day trip through the South island, staying in different cities every night, just by myself. I had traveled alone before but never completely alone on a holiday. Usually I had my husband or family meet or join me after a work trip, so this was thrilling by itself.

I chose to fly down to Queenstown and make my way up to Christchurch to catch my flight to Sydney. Queenstown, known as the adventure capital of the world is situated on Lake Wakatipu, one of the most stunning lakes I had ever seen with its glacial blue hues and the remarkable mountains as its backdrop.

After checking into my hotel room at the scenic suites where I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was no room service charges, I decided to take a cable car ride up on the skyline gondola and check out the luge tracks as well. They also have a bungy swing here for the more adventurous.

The gondola turned out to be well worth the expansive views, after which I made my way down to get a quick lunch in the city. The lines at Fergburger were daunting though the burgers they served were about the size of my face.

Jetlag got the better of me post lunch and I headed back to the room for a short nap. I awoke feeling refreshed and motivated to do something adventurous, being in the adventure capital of the world. Bungy jumping was still a far stretch, so I chose the Shotover jetboat ride instead. 

I started to rethink my decision really quickly upon arriving at the canyon. The waters were icy cold and though you can't see it in the picture, the rapids were extremely fast as well. Maybe I wasn't cut out for adventure.

Too late to cancel, I climbed into the boat, choosing to not sit up front with the driver. The ride begun slowly but very soon we were galloping on the water, making hairline stops in the narrow canyon and 360 degree turns. The adrenaline rush got me in the spirit of things and when we finished, I was glad that I ventured to do this.

Post adventure, I did a quick stop at the Mall to get dinner at a Vietnamese joint, choosing to eat alone while reading my book, enjoying the bliss of solitude. The next few days were slotted to visit some parts of Lorien, Gondor and Rohan, so I called it an early night. More on my journey to follow..

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Literary pursuit of travel - poetry and the other Potter

In this post I invite you to visit the land of the Golden daffodils, the Lake district. Located in Northwestern England, the Lake district has been immortalized though its most famous poet, William Wordsworth. I however had another favorite author in mind when visiting the lakes. Beatrix Potter, who had stirred my imagination with her beautifully illustrated Garden pictures in her tale of Benjamin bunny. It was this countryside that I hoped to see on this adventure.

I couldn't resist the temptation to do a short but still memorable day trip from London to do a ten lakes tour. After careful planning and perusal, this meant catching a very early Virgin train out of London at 6 AM headed toward Glasgow. I'd switch to the local lake district train at Oxenholme and get down at Windermere, the entry point to the Lake district. Here I had booked a ten lakes spectacular tour, after which I'd repeat the train schedule to get back in London late at night.

A cheery conversation on the train with a Scotsman about Cricket (He loved the 20-20 format) and a Cornish pie later, I arrived at Windermere, still feeling a bit tired from the previous day's traveling around Oxford and the Cotswold villages. This was a Monday but I had taken the day off to make the tour.

The tour was pleasant but it was a cold spring day with an occasional hailstorm. We took a cruise on Derwent water which was pleasant and dreamy. 

Post cruise, it was a quick lunch stop at Keswick which is a beautiful English town. I couldn't help having a scone for lunch as I walked past a shop selling the fresh out of the oven.

Post lunch, we stopped by the spectacular Honister slate mine and pass which was a sight to behold. It was amazing to see the towering slate columns on both sides. Here's a picture for scale.

We also stopped at Castlerigg to see the stone circle, a sort of miniature but just as old Stonehenge. It was very intriguing to see. Then we went on to see the Wordsworth graves and daffodil garden at Grasmere. 

As we stopped here for a while, I couldn't help but sneak off to the bookstore around the corner to see if they still stocked the Beatrix Potter books. I was not disappointed! I returned with a full collection of stories in my hands and a happy smile on my face.

It was then time to head back to England. In retrospect I'd have chosen a smaller tour so as to not pack my day full. The English spring was predictably unpredictable and did its part with the intermittent rain which can be freezing up North. This however adds to the magic of the place.

The Lakes definitely deserve a longer visit with the delightful hikes they have to offer, but if you are pressed for time, they can be a satisfying albeit long day trip to see the beauty of the rolling hills and enchanting scenery.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Travel tips and advice

Though I have just scratched the surface of my odysseys, I have learned a few things from visiting places which I hope benefits you, my readers as well. So here is my personal list of dos/dont's while traveling:

Eat the local food

I can't emphasize this enough. Try the local specialities to see what you like/don't like. Do not go seeking the Chinese takeout in every country you visit. Hole-in-the-wall restaurants are typically a good bet as they tend to preserve the local identity. If you are worried about contamination, choose fried/heavily cooked food over salads.
For nicer sit-down meals, listen to the guidebooks. They are usually right about the good restaurants and it is safer to listen when shelling out the big bucks for a meal.

Visit a supermarket

Nothing gives you a better indication of local preferences than this. Make a couple of your meals a picnic from the local supermarket. We had our most enjoyable meal in Venice from the local grocer, complete with cheese, bread and yoghurt. It is also a nice way to save money.

Do not carry packs of ramen or food when traveling. Just buy these locally. Supermarkets are also a great place to buy water, especially in Europe, where water in a restaurant usually costs more than wine.

Skip the museums (well, most of them)

While there are a few like the Louvre or the Vatican that must be visited, don't spend all of your time indoors. Pick a few that deserve your time and attention. If you are not a purveyor or connoisseur of art or have no interest in that area, it is very likely that you'd forget most of what you see in museums.

While I enjoy viewing art, I can't think of many travel memories that were made in museums for us together, excepting looking at David in Florence or at the Vatican.

Art is a lot more enjoyable when you do your homework to identify what it is you like or admire.

Take the local transportation

It gives you a sense of familiarity in a way that riding in a taxi never can. Subways and bus routes help create a mental map of the city. They are also a lot cheaper than cabbing it everywhere.

Do your homework

Try to learn a little about the history of the place you are visiting, its art and architecture. If you are an avid reader, pick up a book set in the location or watch a movie.
Look up the attractions and decide on what appeals to you and what you could afford to miss. Keep a checklist for this as well.

Don't follow the book

Sometimes the best made plans may not work out as planned. We traveled three hours to Interlaken to find that the train up to Jungfrau was cancelled due to bad weather. In situations like this, look at your next best options (a scenic rail trip for us and a visit to another mountain) and evaluate.

If you see something that you just feel like doing, listen to your whim and ease your plans a little. This will substantially improve your experience.

Travel light

I could write an entirely separate post on this topic. Ideally, for about 2 weeks of vacation, you do not need more than a hand luggage and a backpack. Carry along clothing that can be mixed and matched and re-worn. Clothes fit better in baggage when rolled up, and they don't crumple as much either.

Investing in silk scarves is a great idea for women. They are very light, can fit anywhere and can provide warmth and act as your sun/wind/rain screen as needed. They can also block out light on long plane rides.

Always carry a pair of your most comfortable shoes. Leave the pumps and heels behind; You'll likely need them for just a night or two and they take up a lot of space. Invest instead in a nice pair of going out wedges or flats that are also comfortable. Wear the bulkier pair to the airport and pack the other one.

If you are staying in the same hotel for an extended period of time, unpack your box once you check in. Neatly pack away any outfit you have already worn and won't re-wear. You'll find that when it's time to check out, your suitcase will be mostly packed.

Document your experiences

It is great to reflect upon these a few years later; You could do this in several ways. If you like writing, keeping a travel diary might work great. Saving your tickets & other pamphlets is good too. The easiest way is to take a lot of pictures and then create a photoblog on your album. Note down the things you liked seeing and the meals you enjoyed having.

Happy travels!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The literary pursuit of Travel - Bath and Castle combe

Here is the second installment in what I hope is a series in this blog. This time I take you to England which is the source of literature itself, in its very being. I am not going to write about London just yet, but instead will divert your attention to Wiltshire and Somerset.

I knew I wanted to visit Bath after reading the Austen books. Bath also features in the Pickwick papers by Dickens. Apart from that it is beautifully Gregorian with a well preserved Roman bath that gives the town its name and very scenic. Literature and history? what could possibly be perfectly more inviting?

I wanted to however see Castle Combe, often called the prettiest village in England (though there are several that could live up to that reputation) on the way to Bath. Therefore I got off the train at Chippenham and took a taxi ride to see Castle combe in all of 30 minutes, then got back on the train to Bath. Castle combe was indeed lovely but I think the Cotswolds give it tough competition any day.

It was a chilly spring day, and there was a misty rain in the air as I waited in line at the Roman baths. The baths have existed since the Roman times, when the town was called Aquae sulis. Most of the structure above ground level was reconstructed but the museum does show several artifacts dating back to the Roman times and the original temple steps can be viewed as well.

The hot spring seemed to slightly warm the cold air and you could also taste its water at the posh pump room. It was mildly sulfurous and had mineral overtones but was not as disgusting as was claimed. Right outside the baths is the splendid bath abbey.

After this, I decided to take a walk uphill to see the circus and the royal crescent as well as the Austen house and the fashion museums. The Romans had quite a penchant for building houses around circles, but this just made them all the more fetching. The fashion museum was quite disappointing after the exhibits I had seen at the Met in New York.

The other famous sight in Bath is Pulteney bridge over the river Avon, that is compared with Florence's Ponte Vecchio. It is indeed beautiful but the comparison is totally unwarranted. Both the bridges are lined with shops but I guess the similarity stops there.

Bath is definitely a site worth visiting if you are interested in beautiful architecture, scenic vistas and peaceful walks. Here is a list of books, all set in Bath for reading inspiration before your visit!

Saturday, June 01, 2013

The literary pursuit of Travel - Along Lake Geneva

The idea for this post has been brewing in my mind for a little while. As a child, my only option for journeys to places unknown were through books and wild stretches of my imagination. I managed to, through my reading see quite a bit of the world, and what can be more fun than to (re)visit those places from childhood figments of imagination?
This has inspired me on several of my trips, so much so that the literary vein runs strong through my sojourns. One such trip took me to the shores of Lake Geneva on an April morning in 2012. I combined the trip with a scenic rail journey through the alps.

I took the train to Montreux aiming to see Chateau De Chillon, but wanted to do most of the journey on the scenic Goldenpass rail, which requires quite a few train changes at Bern, Spiez and Zweisimmen to be precise. The Swiss precision makes these changes within minutes of each other pretty easy, except for at Spiez where a platform switch made me run like the wind to catch the next train.

After my first gasps of wonder and awe at the alps which managed to amuse a German artist enough to befriend me, the train weaved through scenic countryside to offer vistas of Montreux from high up.

Montreux is a riviera town on Lake Geneva which is quite heavily French. It is fancy but not as flashy as the alpine towns we passed on the train like Gstaad. I had a simple lunch of crepes (what else) on the riviera.

The riviera is delightful to walk in and my swiss pass let me board a boat bound to the Chateau from Montreux offering vistas of the french alps on the other side of the lake.

I knew of this little castle on the lake from Henry James' Daisy Miller where the outgoing Daisy goes with Frederick on a first date, highly frowned upon back in the day. The Novella itself is quite pleasant to read with several undertones touching on innocence, societal perceptions among others.

Chillon did not disappoint, it still ranks very high among the Castles I have visited. The level of defense that went into its fortress is amazing. As a literary bonus, you can see the poet Byron's name graffitied into the dungeon walls by Byron himself when he wrote the most popular work about the Chateau, The  prisoner of Chillon.

After this, I decided to take a bus to another literary town, Vevey. Vevey is known to most people as the birthplace of Nestle and the place where Charlie Chaplin lived his last days. The Chaplin graves are still in Vevey. It features in Daisy Miller as well as another favorite novel of mine, Little Women. Laurie falls in love with Amy as they cruise around the lake at Vevey, and that was quite enough inspiration for me to warrant a visit!
The bus travels down the main roads of Montreux via the casino to Vevey in about 15 minutes. It is a delightful town with a nice market square on the lake and more splendid vistas.

After this, I decided to do a whistle stop at Lausanne, the Olympic capital of Switzerland, a 15 minute train ride from Vevey before catching a high speed train back to Zurich via Thun. Lausanne has a pretty old town which demands a steep but rewarding uphill walk.

Tired after a full day of travel, I headed back to Zurich to call it a good night.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The cities of the world: Top things I enjoy in them

My blog has been suffering form neglect for quite a while, and I seem to refuse to pen down the thoughts that come and vanish so rapidly. Being the travel buff that I am, I am going to make a conscious effort to put down all of those random travel thoughts in pictures and writing before they are relegated to a corner of my mind.

This post is dedicated to the big cities I have traveled to and stayed in for a while to work or vacation in. Each one of them is unique in its own way and I realize there are some big names missing from the list, maybe to be backfilled someday, but here goes:

New York (a.k.a. "The city")

  1. Aptly named "The city that never sleeps", it is the place to go out late at night and never worry about finding places that are open. Shopping at midnight. Cabs all the time.
  2. Excellent restaurants. Some of the best food, ranging from the most expensive Michelin starred tasting menu to the street side lip smackingly good halal truck. 
  3. The best shopping and fashion. Again from the most expensive couture to the sample sales in the garment district.
  4. The Met for its art collection (I'm yet to see all of it) and free entry.
  5. The ability to pay with my credit card or phone on all the city taxis.
  6. The wildly different neighborhoods of New York. Everyone knows what you are up to when you are in Soho vs the Upper east side.
  7. Central park for the multitude of amazing runs and walks.
  8. Times square for being the tourist wonder par excellence and the source of constant annoyance to any New Yorker who needs to wade his way through it enroute to work.

  1. The history that envelops the entire city and is there wherever you look.
  2. The excellent public transport system and the buses which are a pleasure to ride.
  3. The treasure trove of museums with the most amazing collection of artifacts. The free admission into every one of them.
  4. Westminster Abbey (sadly no free admission) and its 3000+ burials.
  5. The fancy department stores and the cream teas, which let you appreciate black tea in its purest unadulterated form.
  6. The palace and the presence of the royals.
  7. The proximity to the rest of Europe.
  8. The city's many parks which are as delightful as an English garden.

  1. The history. The feel of an ancient city.
  2. The excellent food and espresso. The gnocchi and the pizza.
  3. Vatican city and St. Peter's basilica. The sistine chapel and Raphael rooms.
  4. The beautiful evening walks along the via del Corso and spanish steps terminating at random dinners at the sidewalk cafes.
  5. The open piazzas and the Pantheon.

  1. Bondi beach with its huge open air seawater swimming pool where the waves rush in.
  2. The coastal cliff walks along most beaches. The Bondi to Coogee walk was my favorite memory.
  3. The wonderful harbor-side with the beautiful opera house which looks even better in the night.
  4. The rocks district with excellent food and nightlife.
  5. The flying foxes in the botanical garden.
  6. Ibis everywhere! Especially in the parks around the city.
  7. The darling harbor pedestrian bridge and the sky tram.
  8. Aussie pies! Complete with mash and peas.


  1. Walking along the Banhoffstrasse and gawking at the expensive cars.
  2. The Zurichsee with beautiful alpine views on a clear day.
  3. The old town with its many fondue restaurants.
  4. Hiltl and its expansive vegetarian buffet. The presence of so many vegetarian restaurants around town.
  5. The proximity to the alps and access to some of the best nature walks and hikes.
  6. The biergartens around town serving great Swiss-German food.
  7. The rosti everywhere.